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Tag: calexico

A Masterpiece of Noir and Southwestern Gothic by Bronwynne Brent

One of the best collections of dark Americana songwriting released over the past several months is Mississippi-born singer-guitarist Bronwynne Brent’s Stardust, streaming at Spotify. It has absolutely nothing in common with the Hoagy Carmichael song. What it does recall is two other masterpieces of noir, retro-tinged rock: Karla Rose’s Gone to Town and Julia Haltigan‘s My Green Heart. Brent’s simmering blue-flame delivery draws equally on jazz, blues, torch song and oldschool C&W, as does her songwriting.

The album’s opening track,The Mirror sets the stage, twangy Telecaster over funereal organ and Calexico’s John Convertino’s tumbling drums. “The mirror knows the cards that were dealt,” Brent accuses, “You were never there.” Keith Lowe’s ominously slinky hollowbody bass propels Another World, its eerie bolero-rock verse hitched to Brent’s dreamy chorus. She could be the only tunesmith to rhyme “felon” with “compellin’.”

The unpredictably shifting Don’t Tell Your Secrets to the Wind picks up from spare and skeletal to menacingly lush, with biting hints of Romany, mariachi and klezmer music: Nancy Sinatra would have given twenty years off her life for something this smartly orchestrated. By contrast, the banjo-fueled Devil Again evokes the dark country of Rachel Brooke. “You’re just a prisoner watching shadows dance, dancing to your grave,” Brent intones, then backs away for a twangy Lynchian guitar solo. She keeps the low-key moodiness going throughout the softly shuffling Dark Highway, Hank Williams spun through the prism of spare 60s Dylan folk-pop.

When You Said Goodbye brings back the southwestern gothic ambience, with artful hints of ELO art-rock. “When you said goodbye I knew that I would die alone alone,” Brent muses: the ending will rip your heart out. By contrast. Heart’s On Fire, an escape anthem, builds to more optimistic if wounded territory:”Well, you learn from your mistakes, sometimes the prisoner gets a break,” Brent recalls.

Already Gone builds shimmery organ-fueled nocturnal ambience over a retro country sway: spare fuzztone guitar adds a surreal Lee Hazlewood touch. Bulletproof gives Brent a swinging noir blues background while she shows off her tough-girl side: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Eilen Jewell catalog.

Heartbreaker leaves the noir behind for a spare, fingerpicked folk feel, like Emmylou Harris at her most morose. Lay Me Down blends echoes of spare Britfolk, mariachi, creepy western swing and clever references to the Ventures: “Distance grows between us, doesn’t that just free us?” Brent poses. She ends the album on a vividly Faulknerian note: “Guess I can’t stop drinking, not today,” her narrator explains,” You may think that I’m lonely and running out of time, but I’m not the marrying kind.” Add this to your 3 AM wine-hour playlist: it’ll keep the ghosts of the past far enough away where they can’t get to you.

Miwa Gemini Plays Her Smart, Surreal, Uneasily Enigmatic, Jangly Rock at a Rare Afternoon Show

Miwa Gemini is sort of the missing link between Shonen Knife and Calexico. She’s got the endearingly surreal lo-fi Japanese janglerock thing down cold, but she also has a southwestern gothic side. She likes waltzes, but these days it seems that she likes boleros even better. Her quirky sense of humor, along with the birittle vibrato that trails off as her voice reaches the end of a phrase, bring to mind Melora Creager of Rasputina. Gemini’s clangly, reverb-tinged minor-key guitar fits in among the many bands haunting the northern fringes of desert rock, like And the Wiremen. For those of you who might be stir-crazy after spending the evening in while the annual Santacon puke-a-thon made so many of us prisoners in our own homes, Gemini is playing the small room at the Rockwood at 4 (four) PM today, December 13. It’s a pass-the-tip-jar situation.

At her most recent show, at Branded Saloon last month, Gemini and her trumpeter had the misfortune to follow a sizzling set by another duo, cellist-vocalists the Whiskey Girls. Charismatic belter Patricia Santos aired out her powerful and spectacular vocal range throughout a mix of sultry blues, an in-your-face kiss-off song or two and a murderous oldschool soul narrative, all the while playing slinky basslines, ominous deep-well washes of sound and challenging harmonics that required a lot of extended technique. Tara Hanish carried the lead lines with her elegantly serpentine, sometimes baroque-tinged phrasing while adding similarly spot-on high harmonies on the vocal side.

After all that, you might think that Gemini would have been anticlimactic, but she wasn’t. As a guitarist, she didn’t waste notes, using lots of simple, catchy descending lines and uneasy chromatics. As a singer, she projected strongly despite being under the weather after taking a red-eye flight back from a West Coast tour. Some of the duskiest, darkest material seemed to be new, while much of the rest of the set drew on Gemini’s most recent album, Fantastic Lies of Grizzly Rose. It’s a trippy narrative loosely centered around an imperturbably adventurous imaginary muse and possible alter ego – or wishful alter ego. Gemini and her bandmate jangled and soared through the briskly uneasy border-rock shuffe Goodnight Trail, then later on (or before – the memory is fuzzy on this), made a hypnotic Steve Wynn-style low-key groove out of the psychedelic soul ballad The Other Half of Me. Gemini has done a lot of different styles, from oldtimey to swing to garage rock and psychedelia over the years, but she’s never sounded more eclectically tuneful than she has lately.

Haunting Noir Psychedelia and a Rare Williamsburg Show by Fernando Viciconte

“Everything you’re saying turned out wrong,” Fernando Viciconte muses. “Busted and broken or dead and gone.” Then a Farfisa keens, way back in the mix. And then the song explodes. The song is Save Me, the opening track on his new album Leave the Radio On, streaming at Bandcamp. And it’s killer. Sort of the lost great Steve Wynn album.

Viciconte hails from Argentina originally. Got his start in LA twenty-odd years ago, fronting a band called Monkey Paw. Eventually landed in Portland, Oregon. Wynn heard him and gave him the thumbs-up, as does his Baseball Project bandmate Peter Buck, who plays a lot of guitar on the album. You could call this noir psychedelia, for the sake of hanging a name on it, and you wouldn’t be off the mark, although there are a lot of different flavors here from both north and south of the border. It’s one of the best records of the year (and it is a record – you can get it on vinyl). Viciconte is making a rare New York swing, with a gig on November 27 at 9 PM at Pete’s. He’s also at the small room at the Rockwood tomorrow night, the 25th at 8.

The album’s second cut, The Dogs, is a lot quieter and vastly more surreal, with a similar sense of desperation and doom: Viciconte airs out his balmy, Lennonesque voice as the fuzztones come in with a swoosh of cymbals and a big exhaust fan blast of reverb. El Interior blends uneasy organ and mariachi horns into its Patagonian gothic resonance, an allusive tale of return and despair.

Icy, trebly layers of acoustic guitar mingle with eerily stately piano as So Loud gets underway, then picks up with a shuffling border rock groove up to a murderous series of drumshots out. The slow, brooding 6/8 anthem Friends and Enemies traces the last days of a dying relationship over Daniel Eccles’ elegaic guitar and pedal steel lines. Viciiconte hints that he’s going to take The Freak in a growling garage rock direction, but instead rises toward circus rock drama and desperation, David Bowie as covered by southwestern gothic supergroup Saint Maybe, maybe.

Paul Brainard’s pedal steel and then Buck’s mandolin sail woundedly above Viciconte’s low-key, defeated vocals and steady acoustic guitar on another elegaic number, the vintage C&W-inflected Kingdom Come:

Stay in pale moonlight
Stand your ground and choose your side
We don’t believe you anymore
We’ve all crawled on your killing floor

Then the band picks up the pace with the backbeat-driven Burned Out Love, part blistering paisley underground anthem, part wickedly catchy late Beatles. The gloomiest number here, White Trees takes a turn back down into spare folk noir:

When you left the table, who followed you home?
The knives and daggers left flesh and bone
The moon moon was shining on that cursed white stone
And you were crying and crying, trying to let it go

The catchiest yet arguably most haunting of all the tracks is the surreal In Their Heads, with its echoey blend of backward masking and ghostly narrative of childhood memories of an execution. One can only imagine what Viciconte might have witnessed, or heard about, during his early years in Argentina in the days of los desaparecidos. The album winds up on its most Beatlesque note with the title track: “Illusion is only skin deep, like raindrops on your wall,” Viciconte broods, “It all comes to an end in the blink of an eye.” Enjoy this dark masterpiece while we’re all still here.

Tift Merritt’s Traveling Alone: Her Best Album

Tift Merritt’s Traveling Alone is THE lead guitar album of 2012. She’s probably one of the least likely people you might expect to be behind something like this. But she deserves it. As somebody who first hit about ten years ago, in the dying hours of the radio-and-records era (she’s on Yep Roc at the moment: tomorrow, who knows) she’s had to shift gears to make a living on the road. And she’s done it: that’s where she is right now, on US tour. Good songwriters always have their choice of good musicians, but the band on this album is monstrous. Marc Ribot and pedal steel virtuoso Eric Heywood team up for some of the most gorgeous interplay on any rock or country record in recent memory, alongside multi-instrumentalist and Laurie Anderson collaborator Rob Burger plus Merritt’s longtime bassist Jay Brown and Calexico’s John Convertino on drums. Producer Tucker Martine finally got a real band to work with – as opposed to the meh-ness of the Decemberists et al. – and obviously had a blast with all the multi-tracking. Songs typically start out spare, even skeletal, but quickly build to a rich, lush thicket of guitars firing at you every which way.

And yet, Merritt’s nuanced voice is still front and center, often trailing down suspensefully at the end of a phrase to draw the listener even closer. She’s lived up to the comparisons ever since people started calling her the new Linda Thompson. The songs here follow a trail of existential angst, a wistfully knowing solitude: Merritt has never written better, or had so much command of a turn of phrase as she does here. For those who like the idea of Lucinda Williams but find the real thing overrated, this is for you.

There’s a romantic side to being alone, and Merritt is no stranger to that. The theme permeates much of the album, beginning with the title track, where she admits to enjoying it, stress and all. This one has Richard and Linda Thompson all over it, Ribot adding sweet tremolo and then a fiery, distorted solo. Sweet Spot radiates longing but not desperation: it’s Williams without the drunken rasp, over a lush bed of steel and tremolo guitar, Ribot taking it to Memphis with his solo. They go deeper into soul with Drifted Apart, Merritt going for Laura Cantrell-ish understatement [memo to self – who is that guy on the faux-Orbison high harmonies? Aaron Neville?]. Still Not Home grafts a slapdash My Sharona riff onto a brisk, anxious country shuffle, Merritt nailing the tense exhilaration as she makes her way out: “All the windows open and the wind and the wheels, nobody can tell me the way that feels.”

The band goes for a slow, hypnotic, bucolic early evening ambience on Feeling of Beauty, Berger’s piano blending with the steel and the web of acoustic guitars: “I’m all right, thanks for asking/Got a few hopes in my basket,” Merritt sings, misty and sultry. Too Soon to Go, a noir countypolitan tune, is just plain gorgeous with its richly intertwining guitar leads, building to an elegant conversation between Ribot and Heywood. Small Talk Relations is arguably the most intense song here, a towering piano anthem that rises from almost skeletal to lushly orchestrated. Merritt matter-of-factly develops her metaphors to a big crescendo:

Workmen in the street below
Softly play the radio
The crowd just turns to leave
A secret current underneath
Cannot be heard above the din below

A plaintive Appalachian ballad fired up with reverb guitar, steel and Rhodes piano, Spring is a defiant defense of living at the edge, existentially speaking. “Only for a minute just to be alive, before I hit the ground just below the spine,” Merritt intones bittersweetly as the song takes flight, up to a viscerally searing Heywood solo: it’s the high point of the album. Ribot’s slashing, bluesy solo out is pretty adrenalizing too.

The next couple of tracks take a surprisingly effective detour into 80s-flavored pop. The first one, To Myself, wears a backbeat country disguise: you want to hate this, but the hook is just plain irresistible. Likewise, In the Way is the Cure, 1986, with the deluxe Americana package: jauntily pulsing ragtime piano, lusciously watery layers of vintage chorus-box guitar and an artful multitracked solo. The closing cut, Marks, a towering breakup ballad, builds slowly to a fiery tangle of guitars, snarling, resonating and jangling as Merritt reaches for the metaphor in the pocket of her winter coat. Albums like this are hard to write about because it’s impossible to resist the temptation to replay the songs – and then they become distractions. Hopefully this is sufficient inspiration for you to investigate it.

Tom Shaner’s Long-Overdue Solo Debut: Worth the Wait

For those who’ve followed Tom Shaner’s career since his days in the early zeros fronting Industrial Tepee – the great southwestern gothic rock band that should have been as famous as Calexico or Giant Sand but never was – his new album Ghost Songs, Waltzes and Rock n Roll is long overdue. Ironically, though billed to Shaner solo, it’s far more lush and richly arranged than anything he did with that band, in fact, the best thing he’s ever done. The music blends layers of jangly, twangy, spiky, occasionally searing electric and acoustic guitars over a nimble rhythm section, ornamented with deviously flickering keyboards, mandolin, banjo and the occasional wry electronic effect. Songwise, there are echoes of Steve Wynn, the Byrds, Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave in its most pensive moments.

Shaner’s nonchalant, laid-back vocals are sort of a cross between Lou Reed and the Wallflowers’ Jakob Dylan. The songs’ lyrics are terse, cynical and clever: they’ll resonate especially with anyone who’s weathered the same storms as Shaner has during these past few years as the New York he came up in slid closer and closer to New Jersey. Although many of the songs have a dusky desert feel, a familiar urban milieu recurs throughout the album. That factors in heavily on the funniest song here, the deadpan, early Elvis Costello-ish Unstoppable Hipster, as well as the considerably more spare, haunting Downtown Has Done Damage, which reminds of the Church around 1986 or so.

Sinner’s Highway sets a surreal, sordidly Lynchian scene to snarling minor-key rock: a late-period Industrial Tepee tune, it reminds a lot of Steve Wynn, with a wry quote in the solo guitar outro. Another one from that era, Sister Satellite manages to be dreamy yet bracing as its layers of guitar mingle and then surge.Then Shaner evokes another well-known late 90s/early zeros band, White Hassle, with Forever Drug, spiced with tongue-in-cheek samples and hip-hop turntablism.

She Will Shine is crushingly caustic: over punchy, syncopated, Jayhawks-flavored rock, Shaner relates how a girl who couldn’t hack it in the big city is ostensibly leaving for better things in the country, but “when the lid is lifted, everything is shifted…her time is complete, the future is a one-way street.” Rosa Lee, a big concert favorite, works a more pensive, regretful vein.

Shaner pairs Foreverland, a creepy reggae song, with the nebulous, only slightly less creepy psych-folk anthem Silent Parade. Where Grief Becomes Grace, an echoey desert rock dirge, is as broodingly evocative as anything Giant Sand ever did. A cover of Tom Waits’ Cold Water picks up the pace with a gospel-fueled menace, black humor in full effect.

Only slightly less dark colors close the album. Everything Is Silver returns to a romping Elvis Costello vibe: it’s the opposite of what it seems. And My House is Green builds a moody acoustic Velvets ambience. But not everything here is as dark: there’s Sun Girl #2, with its lushly gentle Sunday Morning sway, and Streets of Galway, a lively Irish tune. One of the best albums of 2012, no question. Shaner plays the release show – assuming the subways are back up and running – at the Knitting Factory on Nov 7 at 8:30 PM.